On March 24, Yale-NUS sent an email to its student body announcing the school’s adoption of the Latin honors system. Yale-NUS’s switch to the system, which has previously generated much controversy at Yale and elsewhere, came as a surprise to many students — and an unpleasant one at that.
In the email, Yale-NUS Registry — the school’s registrar’s office — said the decision came after several discussions on how to best “recognize students’ achievement and excellence,” and will apply to all students including the inaugural class currently in its third year. Following the announcement, concerned Yale-NUS students distributed a petition letter among the student body criticizing the suitability of such a policy. As of Monday night, 175 out of around 500 Yale-NUS students had signed the petition, which cited potential hindrances to intellectual exploration, the college’s relatively small student-body size and a potential job market disadvantage posed to Yale-NUS graduates compared to those from the National University of Singapore, which uses a GPA-cutoff system instead of a curved honors system.
“In short, students are expected to accept a system in which their academic performance across four years is boiled down to only one opportunity to distinguish themselves,” the petition said. “While we may be trying to build a U.S.-style liberal arts college in Singapore, the importance of localization cannot be underestimated.”
According to the new policy, Latin honors will be awarded to no more than 35 percent of each graduating class. No more than 60 percent, or six students — whichever is larger — in any one major will receive cum laude or above, and no more than 40 percent, or four students — whichever is larger — in any one major will receive magna cum laude or above.
The petition said the curved nature of the policy will breed competition among students, especially those in small-sized majors of eight or nine people. It added that the policy might incentivize Yale-NUS students to take easy classes to increase their GPA, thus going against the school’s mission of encouraging learning out of one’s comfort zone.
Pratyush More YNUS ’18, who signed the petition, said his major concern is the academic implication of the new policy, which he called “too monolithic.” He said the Latin honors system fails to capture the differing levels of rigor in different courses, and may end up penalizing students for choosing classes based on genuine interest over what grade they can obtain.
More added that the system is also unsuitable given small class sizes. For example, the class of 2018 has around 170 students. Five percent of the class, which will be awarded summa cum laude, only translates to nine awardees.
“Imposing a policy which is generally used by schools of much larger sizes without making any notable modifications is an action I am doubtful of,” he added.
The petition also argued that the policy will put Yale-NUS students at a disadvantage in the job market to their peers from NUS, who will get the same degree as they do but observe a different honors system. Both NUS and Yale-NUS graduates receive NUS diplomas. The system at NUS is a cutoff based solely on GPA, not on rankings among the graduating class. To obtain the lowest class of honors degree at NUS, a student needs a GPA of 3.00 to 3.49 on a 5-point scale. Therefore, Yale-NUS graduates might compete with NUS students with lower GPAs but higher honors conferred by their university. Students say the problem is exacerbated given the Singaporean cultural context, where many government agencies and top private firms do initial interviews based on the type of honors students receive and where salary offers vary based on degree classification, the petition added.
Yale-NUS Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Tan Tai Yong said the school adopted a different honors policy from NUS, because unlike NUS, Yale-NUS does not use a bell-curve grading system and each instructor sets his or her own grading criteria. As a result, Tan said, GPAs received at Yale-NUS, unlike at NUS, do not correspond to percentiles within classes.
“While Latin honors may not be as widespread in Singapore, it is well-known in the international educational arena and recognizable to employers worldwide,” Tan said.
Trisha Craig, the dean of the Yale-NUS Center for International and Professional Experience who also oversees career resources for students, said what ultimately matters in competing for jobs is how well the market understands who Yale-NUS graduates are, an area that her office and senior administrators are working especially hard towards. Craig added that employers are interested in what graduates bring to the table. While academic performance is part of that, the ability to think in new situations and to handle oneself for the tasks at hand is important as well, Craig added.
Joanelle Toh YNUS ’19, who also signed the petition, said she is most concerned about potentially decreased job prospects as a result of the new policy. Toh said the fact that Yale-NUS is so new and has not yet established its brand already complicates the job search for graduates.
“The introduction of this new system, which essentially allows a lower number of students to graduate with some sort of distinction, is troubling,” Toh said. She added that the practical side of the issue has to be acknowledged, because Yale-NUS students pay higher tuition than their peers at other Singaporean universities and it is natural for them to expect higher pay in the future.
In addition to potential disparities in the job market, students say the Latin honors policy may penalize certain Yale-NUS students because of the school’s Common Curriculum, a set of compulsory classes for all students regardless of their background in the subject. Previously, Yale-NUS students criticized the grading systems in some Common Curriculum classes as arbitrary and harmful to students’ performance. The petition noted that other colleges that adopt a common curriculum, such as the University of Chicago and Columbia University, do not have a Latin honors system.
Marusa Godina YNUS ’18 said she was quite disappointed with some of the Common Curriculum classes. While the academic body is revising and improving the curriculum, she doesn’t think the students should be punished for lower graders that were “not their fault.”
Other Yale-NUS students interviewed criticized the system because it is contrary to the spirit of Yale-NUS, a start-up school that encourages risk-taking. Furthermore, there are students taking NUS classes or pursuing a dual-degree program at NUS, and it is unclear how the honors policy will apply to those students.
Students interviewed also voiced grievances about how little communication the administration had with students before announcing the new system.
“The policy decision was not even alluded to previously — it was kind of just dropped on everyone one morning via email,” Toh said.
In response, the Yale-NUS Student Government has met with Yale-NUS senior administrators to raise students’ concerns, and will organize a town hall soon to have a dialogue on the issue with the administration.
Godina said she is optimistic on the issue and that based on her previous experiences, the college’s administrators are “always ready to listen.”
“I’m glad that the proposed policy triggered criticism and debate,” she said.